Op Ed for the re-launched IAB Web site

Despite the sweaty palms and the pacing up and down, it’s a pleasure to be here in the delivery room to witness the birth of the IAB’s new Web site. Randy will make for a wonderful father and we should look forward to buying him a cigar to celebrate. However wherever we encounter joy, fear is never far away. I rather wonder though if it is not being born into a difficult world, one in which it, like other non-commerce web sites might be increasingly seen as an anachronism in the wider world of interactive consumer communications.

It’s a mission thing. The IAB seeks to assist our craft, and historically at least its mission has been‘to organize the industry to set standards and guidelines that make interactive an easier medium for agencies and marketers to buy and capture value.’

The impending challenge arises from the very concept of seeking rules, standards and conventions in a world which only exists because smart folks called Berners-Lee (WWW GUI), Bezos (Amazon), Yang (Yahoo!), Whitman (EBay), Brin (Google), Newmark (Craigslist), Ferber (Ad.com), Friis (Joost) and Zuckerberg (Facebook) among many others showed a total disregard for rules, standards and conventions in creating the most powerful communications platforms of our generation. Their mission was in so many ways similar to the IAB’s but they chose to represent the needs of a very different constituency, they organized the channel to make interactive an easier medium for consumers , developers and sellers to use and capture value.

In doing this they proceeded without regard to our business models and took a bet on the possibility that revenue would accrue as a consequence of usage and that said revenue could come from our customers and their consumers in some unspecified way other than a general sense of convenience and usefulness.

The result has been a significant challenge to the hegemony of many of our businesses and why should we be surprised because it’s not just agencies and publishers that have felt the sting of the new. New businesses everywhere have been created by the Internet and its applications that share some key characteristics that their forebears have difficulty in replicating. It’s rather like asking someone for driving directions and getting the answer, “I wouldn’t start from here.”
The key characteristics are low cost bases allowed by minimal production and distribution infrastructure, the creation of non-physical goods and services and the propagation of advertising inventory at something approaching zero marginal cost. Contrast that with the organization of TV networks, newspaper publishers, ad agency networks, the phone companies and Yellow Pages and for that matter the United States Postal Service itself.

Part of our challenge is that we as a collective have tried to bend the interactive space to our will principally by attempting to apply familiar paradigms to a new and unfamiliar space. We have even tried hard to apply our language in ways that don’t recognize the real nature of the beast. Of all these references the most common and misplaced is our insistence on referring to the web as a medium (and by turn a line item on a media plan) when at the very least it is a channel and by any reasonable analysis it is, prosaically, a platform and, perhaps more colorfully, a parallel universe.

The notion of a parallel universe is easily explained when we try and think of any human activity beyond the strictly biological that cannot be replicated online through the facility of the Internet protocol. To save you pondering that for too long restrict it to the functions of marketing communications. All of advertising, direct marketing, sales, promotions, sponsorship, PR, cause marketing, event marketing and consumer research thrive in this environment which in itself warns against a mindset that seeks to find narrow and, therefore, controllable definitions that only fits the language of media planner and publisher.

Back to the role of the IAB. We did not and will not gain control of how many characters are allowable in a search listing, we won’t and can’t gain control of applications developed for the increasingly open platforms of Facebook and Myspace. Google and Joost will make their own minds up about ad formats for Youtube and IPTV. Even ABC developed its own ad model and format for its full episode player. For everything we know about ads do we really understand applications?

This implies a triumph of innovation over regulation and through hooded and trepidatious eye-lids a triumph of chaos over standards. It further implies, assuming an irreversible tide, that what we really need is a combination of imagination and production efficiency that allows marketers, their agencies and publishers to develop truly valuable (and thereby compelling) communication applications that create value through the dual ability to increase the potential of changing hearts and minds and simultaneously reducing the costs of goods sold.

In this last point lies what may be the future of the IAB. In the channel or universe suggested here the key challenge for marketers is developing the measures of effectiveness and the understanding of the formats and processes that drive that effect. To be clear this is the measure of marketing’s effect on metrics like awareness and attitudes rather than the internal measures of media like reach and frequency and ways of counting. It’s not that these don’t have importance rather that they are not in and off themselves a reason for being.

The IAB stands at the threshold of a tremendous opportunity and possibly of a new mission:
“To assist brand owners, their agencies, content owners and distributors in understanding and measuring the effect of communications delivered through addressable platforms and to monitor and report on user interaction with evolving communication models.”

We have the community to achieve this, yet so far it’s close but no cigar.

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